No talk of U-turns, please: call for cross-party unity on immigration shift
A Tory MP and a Labour colleague from a parliamentary committee have called for cross-party consensus on withdrawing overseas students from net migration figures so the government can make the policy shift without being accused by the opposition of "fiddling the figures".
Nadhim Zahawi, of the Conservatives, and Paul Blomfield, of Labour - both members of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee - appeared together at a fringe event during the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham.
The event on overseas students and immigration on 8 October was hosted by the 2020 Conservatives, a group of modernising Tory MPs.
Mr Blomfield, the MP for Sheffield Central, said his presence at the Conservative conference not only prompted "surprised faces on a number of Conservative colleagues" but "demonstrates that we can work together on issues of importance where we share common interests".
The consensus that emerged between the two backbenchers will raise hopes among universities that the Conservative and Labour front benches may reach similar agreement.
Universities UK has mounted a lobbying campaign to urge the government to remove university-sponsored non-European Union students from the net migration count - which would mean that the Home Office no longer had reason to reduce the number of overseas students coming to the UK.
In addition, many in the sector believe that the policy shift is the only way for the coalition to meet the Conservative manifesto commitment to reduce net migration to the "tens of thousands" by 2015.
Although the government has said that it will now gather additional "disaggregated" figures that exclude overseas students, the official net migrant count still includes students.
Mr Zahawi, the MP for Stratford-on-Avon, argued that public concerns about immigration were focused on groups other than students.
"In the interests of an informed public debate about immigration policy, the government must remove international students from the headline migration figures," he told the event, titled "A More Educated Immigration Debate: Students, Immigration Targets and Government Policy".
Mr Zahawi said there was a need to "achieve a broad political consensus on this issue".
But he added: "As long as the opposition - of whatever party by the way - is tempted to cry 'U-turn' or 'fiddling the figures', no government is going to have the courage of its convictions and reform the target. We need to present a united front in standing up for the British economic interest."
Mr Blomfield, who highlighted the contributions made to the UK economy by overseas students in higher education, said: "I very much agree with the point Nadhim is making about the need to try to have a common approach...that means not [having] politicians from my side jumping in and accusing the government of fiddling the figures if there is a further shift in policy, which I think many people would like to see."
He said that he would be meeting Chris Bryant, Labour's shadow immigration minister, soon to discuss the issue and reported that he thought things were moving in a "positive direction".